In a pivotal set piece toward the beginning of Brave, the redheaded heroine is charged with a seemingly impossible task: She must best an opponent’s perfect bull’s eye. Impossible, except anyone that’s ever seen an archery contest according to Hollywood already knows exactly where the scene is going: Merida will fire her arrow straight through her opponent’s, splitting it down the middle. When did archers start splitting arrows?
Around the 17th century. In fiction, that is: It’s unclear whether splitting an arrow from nock to tip in the manner depicted in Brave and other films and stories is possible at all in real life. Archers do plant arrows in the back of other arrows—it’s a rare but not uncommon occurrence called “telescoping” or shooting a “Robin Hood,” that seems to be on par with a hole-in-one in golf—but there’s no evidence that it’s possible to sail one arrow straight through another.
The TV series Mythbusters took on just that question in a controversial episode. They found that even when fired at close range by a robot, the arrows could only partially split the target arrow. For a follow-up episode, the Mythbusters team responded to skeptics by attempting the feat again, this time using the equipment used in Robin Hood’s time. Though this type of bow and arrow doesn’t actually shoot very straight, one dissenting viewer donated the straightest possible grain of wood, so that the arrow might follow the grain to the end. This time, each arrow shattered upon striking the nock, and they concluded that the feat was only possible when shooting at a hollow arrow or an arrow made of bamboo. (Such a shot, it’s worth noting, counts only as a tie in a real archery competition.)
The legend of arrow-splitting is not based on any real-life achievement, but rather on a simple textual misunderstanding, at least according to one historian. Thomas Ohlgren, a Robin Hood scholar who has edited several books on the tales, told me that he believes the tradition of splitting the arrow simply came from a misinterpretation of tales from the 15th century. In these earlier versions of the Robin Hood legend, Hood—or sometimes another outlaw from his band—splits not an opponent’s arrow but the “wand,” a small willow stick placed in front of the target, and a much more difficult target than a bull’s-eye. In A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, for example, from the 15th century, both Robin Hood and Little John cleave the wand, in two separate scenes:
Twyse Robyn shot a boute,
And ever he cleved the wande.
Thre tymes Litell Johnn shet aboute,
And alwey he slet the wande.
Over the next few centuries, as the modern colored target came into fashion, the wand became confused with the arrow. In a version of the mid-17th-century poem “Robin Hood and Queen Catherine” (part of the Forresters Manuscript discovered in 1993), Robin Hood achieves the first known split arrow:
Then shott Loxly for Our Queen
And cloue his arrow in three
It was the greatest fictional shot of all-time. While it may have arisen from a misunderstanding, it would soon become an institution, and Robin Hood’s signature shot. It seems to have inspired Sir Walter Scott, the man who would immortalize the feat in the popular imagination. Scott, a scholar of medieval tales, recognized the heightened drama and psychological intimidation inherent in splitting an enemy’s arrow. In Ivanhoe (1820), he wrote arrow-splitting into the Robin Hood legend once and for all. The passage is instantly recognizable as the basis for every great archery contest scene since:
“Thou canst not mend that shot, Locksley,” said the Prince, with an insulting smile.
“I will notch his shaft for him, however,” replied Locksley.
And letting fly his arrow with a little more precaution than before, it lighted right upon that of his competitor, which it split to shivers.
The spectators in Scott’s telling, too, are astonished. “Such archery was never seen since a bow was first bent in Britain,” one exclaims in a stunned whisper.
The impossible shot most famously came to the movies in 1938, in The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn. The scene is played fairly straight, with the thrill coming primarily from how convincing the depiction is. It’s Hollywood magic, of course: Though a modern Robin Hood was brought in—Howard Hill, the unofficial “World’s Greatest Archer”—he was apparently unable to accomplish the shot. Wikipedia claims that the moment was filmed only with the assistance of an invisible guide wire, though others dispute this.
Of course, with hundreds of arrows cleft in twain ever since, our bards have faced an extra challenge in stunning contemporary audiences. This was most brilliantly spoofed in 1966 in the TV series Batman, in which Alfred (who is revealed to have been an expert bowman as a younger man) faces off against the villain The Archer (played by Art Carney). After the Archer dismisses Alfred’s bull’s-eye as only “mediocre,” the two men trade off splitting arrows, declaring, “The first man who misses splitting an arrow is a loser.” They split at least 4 arrows consecutively before the men forget the contest altogether.
Ever since, twists have been required to keep the trope fresh. Disney’s 1973 Robin Hood adds an extra layer of wackiness: After the Sheriff of Nottingham flicks Robin Hood’s bow to cause him to misfire up into the air, Robin Hood launches a second arrow to spike the first arrow out of the air and send it toward Nottingham’s arrow. Mel Brooks’ 1993 Robin Hood: Men in Tights takes this one step further: After the Sherriff interferes with his shot, Robin Hood’s magic arrow makes several twists and turns on its own, passes twice through the stands (causing the fleeing audience to do “the wave”), and then finally explodes his opponent’s arrow, leaving a substantial crater. In Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, meanwhile, the trick shot is mainly that of the cinematographer: The camera appears to ride the arrow all the way to the target.
The arrow-splitting scene in Brave may elicit some chills, but only because we see it in such vivid detail: After a long exhale eases us into super slow-motion, we see the rippling of the fletches, the wobbling of the shaft, and one of the feathers lightly grazing Merida’s cheek. Then the arrow sails straight through not only the opponent’s arrow but also the target itself, to lodge in the wooden support behind it. With its high style, the scene still finds a way to hit its mark, and once more bests the next best thing from real life.
Thanks to Thomas Hahn of the University of Rochester, Jim MacQuarrie of Pasadena Roving Archers, Thomas Ohlgren of Purdue University, Linda Troost of Washington & Jefferson College, and Allen Wright of BoldOutlaw.com
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